Summary: How to pray. How God answers prayer. How we should not badger God for material needs but use prayer to open our hearts to a true dialogue with God, and why God failed to let me win the lottery despite the fact that I had prayed for it.
Sermon: 17th in Ordinary Time
Text: Luke 11:1-13
In the name of the +Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.
When I was a child, my approach to prayer was the same as going to the supermarket with a shopping list; because I would pray [hands together, eyes closed] “God bless Mummy and dNddy, and God bless Granny and Grandad and God bless Auntie Maureen and God bless everybody and make me a good boy. Amen”
Now, Whilst there is nothing intrinsically wrong with that prayer, it is not prayer as Our Lord and Saviour taught us; it is a diatribe of petition, in which Our Father is unable to get a word in edgeways. We need to think a little more about prayer, about how God responds to prayer and about the reasons why prayer is such an important ministry of every Christian, every day.
At face value, this morning’s Gospel would appear to advocate badgering God until one gets one’s own way, but this is not really the case. God knows our needs, our real needs before we actually bring them to him.
So why do we pray? What is the point if God already knows our prayers? Bringing our needs to God is not for his benefit, but for ours; enabling us to recognise our real needs before God; to open our hearts and allow God to drip feed the answer into us.
This is the Lukan version of the Lord’s Prayer: shorter, more concise, but still with the same essential structure and theology as the long version we adopt as the Lord’s Prayer we use daily in the liturgy found from the Gospel of Matthew.
"Pray without ceasing” advocated St. Paul in his letter to the Thessalonians [1 Thessalonians 5:17] and he was certainly perceptive in this advice; for our prayer, the prayers of the saints and the prayers of Our Blessed Lady before the Throne of Grace are powerful.
Powerful, not as coins of bartering or sycophancy in the heavenly court but because it is through prayer that we can open our hearts and our lives to God and it is to this wholesome intention that God responds and will respond, I guarantee in his positive, loving way.
We approach him in the Lord’s prayer not as a distant, abstract, absent Victorian-style "Pater" but as a familial (almost shockingly familial) "Daddy" - yes “Daddy” is the best translation for the Aramaic “Abba”; A Daddy who knows and loves each one of us and has a special relationship with us.
The parable at the heart if this gospel speaks not of a man bullied into rising to share his bread with the guest of a neighbour. The key word "persistence" is actually a doubtful translation – ‘anaideia’ is more suggestive of "shamelessness", of being willing to rise in the middle of the night to raid the breadbin because it is the right thing to do, and because the man is pleased to do it: this Middle-Eastern hospitality written out plain for us - the whole village would normally gladly give hospitality to a guest and would be pleased to do so. In this parable, it is Our Father who will rise and meet our needs, at any hour, not really because of our "persistence" but out of his promise to us, and out of the simple joy of doing so for us.
But we must be careful, and not run away with the idea that anything asked in prayer is automatically given to us. God is not to be manipulated, sometimes he will answer our prayers, but in ways we may not always think we want.
As if to prove this, in an objective test; I decided to purchase a lottery ticket yesterday. Here it is, and here are my numbers: 1,11, 26, 28, 42 and 47. Now I can assure you all, as a part of this experiment, that I prayed very hard for them to come up last night. Now, unluckily for my bank manager, but luckily for the point of this sermon, these numbers failed to be picked and the jackpot went to someone else.
Was this because I hadn’t prayed hard enough? Was it because I was too sinful? Perhaps my sin was to purchase a lottery ticket in order to assist my sermon, and it was because of this unforgiven sin that God turned my prayer away? Could it have been that God wholly disapproves of the lottery as a cynical government ploy to encourage a gambling culture, to subsidize the public purse by the back door and actually subvert real charitable giving in this country?
Or was it that God answered my prayer, but not in the way I thought I wanted him to. That the lottery is something that I could better do without and that the hand that guides me and guides you responded to my experiment in prayer with a kind, firm but patient: no. [screw up lottery ticket and throw over shoulder]